Thursday, May 10, 2012

Love: Remain and Observe

Sixth Sunday of Easter Year B


If it was as if we just didn’t have enough on the topic of ‘love,’ which was substantially dished out in large sumptuous portions last Sunday, we are treated to its sequel this week. In last week’s gospel and this week’s, we find the word ‘remain’ ten times. To some, the repetition seems overdone; a tautological instrument inserted by the author perhaps to just fill up space. Whereas for others, the oft used word is capable of leading us into a more profound reflection on the topic of ‘love. Just as the branches must remain a part of the vine in order to bear fruit, remaining with the Lord is the fundamental first theme of this week’s gospel. But to remain where? In love, in the love of Christ, in being loved and in loving the Lord.

To understand the meaning of the word ‘remain’ and its context, one needs to return to last week’s gospel, where Jesus presented the parable of the vine. The vine is an Old Testament image which we find in the Prophets and in Psalms, and has a double meaning: it refers both to God as well as to his People. But here emerges the second meaning: the vine is a symbol of spousal love, an expression of the joy of love that springs from fidelity. “Steadfast love” and “faithfulness” are two qualities that are often found together in the Old Testament to describe God. God enters into a covenant, a relationship of no meager proportions, and an unprecedented union with his People. What we have here is not just some flitting superficial relationship, but one which will survive the test of time and tribulations, one which will endure across the centuries, one that will not be rescinded even in the face of infidelity.

But then, we all know the story of the Bible. As much as it is tale that eulogises the fidelity of God, the Bible is equally a story that recounts the infidelity of the People whom God had chosen as his own. Man chooses and attempts to break the bond which is unbreakable. He wants a life that is autonomous and independent of God. And due to his transgressions, the vineyard is devastated, the wild boar and enemies invade and violates its parameters. But God does not give up: God finds a new way to arrive at a free and irrevocable love, to the fruit of this love, to the true grape: God becomes man, and thus, he himself becomes the root of the vine, he himself becomes the vine which is therefore indestructible. The people of God cannot be destroyed because God himself has entered into their experience and existence, he implanted himself on this earth. God has introduced the indestructible mortar into the foundation of this vine, Christ himself. Thus, we come to understand that fidelity in any relationship is not a personal moral choice but derives its efficacy from its true source, the God who is ever faithful. In order that one remains faithful in loving, one must remain in love, in Jesus who is God’s Love Incarnate.

To “remain” is not the only imperative we find in this passage. ‘Remaining’ leads to the second imperative that is to “observe.” It must be noted that "observe" is only found at the second level - the first is still "remain," the ontological level. It is not we who must produce this great fruit called love. We do not create love through our observance of the commandments. On the contrary, the ability to observe the commandments flows from our fundamental relationship of ‘remaining’ with God. It is not we who have to do what God expects of the world, but we must enter, above all, into this ontological mystery: God has given himself. God’s act of loving us precedes our action of loving him. In the second reading, St John eloquently speaks of this divine initiative of love – “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” Love is not defined by our feeble attempts but by the fundamental act of God towards us, an act that cannot be separated from his Being, from his Self – both the act and the actor is Love. And we who are drawn into this dynamic reality become part of that Love too.

The second imperative to “observe” all the commandments seems oddly out of sync with the first one, which calls us to “remain” in Christ’s love. We often associate the observance of commandments or the law as restrictions unnecessarily and unjustly placed upon a person, and thus appears to be the ante-thesis of love which we associate with freedom. And yet here, Jesus by juxtaposing these two imperatives, remind us that observance of the law is a natural consequence of remaining in love. One flows from the other. One demonstrates the other. Ethics is a consequence of being.

Thus, morality is not just a set of obligations and rules that derives its authority from outside of us. We do not have to obey a law laid down before us, a law that is external to us, but we only need to act in accordance with our identity. As beings rooted in the love of God, it is in our very nature and purpose to obey his commandments. Thus, it is no longer obedience, an external thing, but a realization of the gift of our new being. To truly love, one finds no contradiction in observing commandments. Disobedience, on the other hand, denies this identity. St John confronts the real contradiction in our lives when we profess to love God but refuse to obey his commandments; we love God but hate our neighbor. It is tantamount to claiming that one can bear fruit whilst living apart from the vine. For Christ, loving God is synonymous with observing and obeying his commandments.

Having introduced the theme of love through these two common but deeply profound words, to “remain” and to “observe”, Christ now presents the Commandment which summarises all others – the new Commandment of love - "Love one another as I love you.” Christ presents his catechesis on love not by outlining a structure of actions, obligations and duties. If it was so, it would be pure moralism. He presents his catechesis in the form of personal testimony. What is so radically new about this new Commandment is not the level of heroic action that a Christian must do, but what Christ himself as done. The novelty or newness of the Commandment transfers the standard and point of reference from the individual Christian to that of Christ himself. It is Christ who has given us himself, took on our human nature, and finally given his life on the cross for us. As the gospel tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."

And so the novelty is the gift, the great gift, and from this gift, from its novelty follows new action. Christ, fully human and fully divine, accomplished what was humanly impossible. St. Thomas Aquinas says it in a more precise manner when he writes: "The new law is the grace of the Holy Spirit" (Summa theologiae, I-IIae, q. 106, a. 1). The new law is not a new command more difficult than others: the new law is a gift, the new law is the presence of the Holy Spirit given to us in the Sacrament of Baptism, in Confirmation, and given us daily in the Eucharist.

Let us thank God for the greatness of his love, let us pray that he may help us to grow in his love, and truly remain in his love. For this is love – not our gift to Him but His gift to us. This is love, not just some passionately feverish moment of altruism but one that is characterized by fidelity and obedience; one that prepares us to lay down our lives for our friends. We can do so only because Christ has done so.

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